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1 review about Capricornia

Herbert writes like Australia's Dickens, reads like its Dos Passos

  • Apr 1, 2012
I bought this book cold while I was working in Melbourne, Australia, and found I had picked up a classic.   The introduction references Herbert as Australia's Charles Dickens, and the comparison is apt.  While more physical and rugged than Dickens because of his setting in the mythical Capricornia, which corresponds to northern Australia, the analogy is particularly fitting in two key areas:
  1. Names drive character.  Dickensian names--Scrooge, Pickwick, David Copperfield--are known even by confirmed non-readers, and more importantly instantly bring to mind the character of the character.  This gives the reader an instant hook to hold onto who the character is.  Similarly Herbert's names pack meaning.  My favorites:  State attorney Easycomb, "who rarely ever won a case for the State" was easy go, and lost his job to Thumscrough, who rarely lost and never showed mercy. And we hardly need his title to know Reverand Prayter's occupation!
  2. Chapter headings drive story.  While Dickens chapter heading usually cast humorous commentary on the story, Herbert's drive the story forward without telling it in advance.  Early in the book, I often found myself looking back to the Table of Contents after reading a chapter and responding with an a-ha!  I learned to pay attention to the chapter titles as I started each chapter and read the chapter as it unfolded to reveal the meaning of the title.

But at the heart of a classic is the story.  Capricornia takes on the story of Australia's national character and the powerful shaping of it through the fractured prism of race and color.  Much like the United States, fracture has yet to heal even today, and is based on a volatile mix of a 19th-century ethnic-cleansing" of the pre-historic native peoples, and the obsession with skin color and "blood-tainted" miscegenation.    This mix drives a powerful racism that Herbert addresses with a bold realism, powerful dialogue, and direct description that echos John Dos Passos USA trilogy written about the same time.

Norman Shillingsworth, the central character through most of the story, is a half-caste whose dead mother was an aborigine and whose white father abandoned him to be raised by an uncle when he fled the country leaving behind a pile of debt, a failed business, and the murder of a Chinese store owner.  As it turns out, when Norman's father returns later in his life the racism in society works in his favor as he beats the charges of murder of a citizens rated as  "lower-class" because of his ethnic origin.

At the same time, racism works against his son, as the designation "yeller-feller" follows him through life because of his skin color, no matter how educated (he is a certified engineer who demonstrates his ability to fix a locomotive engine but can't be hired for the job because of his skin color) and how much wealth and social grace his uncle's social position reflects upon him.  Through it all Norman remains driven and mostly optimistic, in fact sometimes almost naive about the efficacy of his own ability to succeed in the racist culture facing him at every turn.  

Norman (his name, a corruption of "no name" from his mixed and abandoned beginnings, is a powerful reflection of his position) experiences good and bad, but as he grows in experience, influence, and knowledge in the community that rejects him, his range of possibilities is increasingly conscripted, until in the end he finds himself nearly cut off from his family and even life itself by a powerful fate he can't change.  

The story moves at a persistent, powerful speed that carries the reader forward insistently, a strong mark of a classic.  Well worth reading for anyone who lives in, has been to, or has an interest in Australia and the literature that shapes and has been shaped by it.

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